September 11, 2012

The Empty Chair

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Politics is often cheap because it aims to immediately connect with as many people as possible. Sometimes, however, such actions are so great by their own merits that they transcend the typical election cycle and become artworks. Lyndon Johnson’s “Daisy” attack ad implied Barry Goldwater was a nuclear warmonger, and the anti-war poster And Babies?  implied American soldiers in the Vietnam War were disturbed baby killers. Both affected the American consciousness so much that they served as catalysts to change the conversation inside and outside of politics, showing how politics can become art just like how art can become politics.

But combining art and politics also means that we have to extend the kitschy examples along with the great ones. We see the same advertisements of happy children running around politicians who are touring American flag factories, but some excel in their tackiness to delight schadenfreude-loving journalists. I am, of course, talking about Clint Eastwood talking to Barack “empty chair” Obama at the Republican National Convention.

Clint’s appearance was kept secret by Romney’s top PR people in the hope of bringing some Hollywood thrills to an otherwise redundant political practice designed when travel across America took days. As typical for political conventions, it was supposed to be highly scripted, with Romney’s top PR people giving Clint talking points and a strict time limit. Clint ignored both, and instead cagily asked the production crew for a chair that later turned out to be the President. “Mr. President, how do you, how do you handle, uh … how do you handle promises that you’ve made when you were running for election, and how do you handle uh, how do you handle them? I know that people, uh … people were wondering …”

Although the reaction to the speech was bad — the Republican governor Scott Walker described it as “cringing” and Romney staffers started pointing blame at each other — Clint’s performance was a sharp break from Romney’s corporate, stuffy approach. Within 12 minutes, Clint made up for Romney’s lack of color and humanity in the past year. This is because talking to a chair is a legitimate (and effective) role-playing practice used in psychotherapy to help people work out their problems. Clint, in effect, had the opportunity to start a national therapy session that could have detoxed the current political environment by giving us an honest chance to vent our frustrations and face hard truths.

Clint seemed to be headed in that direction when he botchily asked “President Obama” how he handled the promises he made back in 2008, but as he realized he was bewildering the audience he dumped the whole therapy theme (“We’re gonna have to have a little chat about that”) and switched to something easier. “What? What do you want me to tell Romney? I can’t tell him to do that, he can’t do that to himself! You’re getting as bad as Biden.” Thus, Clint saved himself and got the next best possible reaction from the audience — laughter.

I don’t blame Clint for switching tack: forming coherent feelings towards a personified hurdle is hard enough in a therapist’s office, and more so on national television. But that assumes that he was serious about conversing with the President, rather than trying to give the convention a pep / trash talk. If he were honest, Clint’s jokes (“Biden is the intellect of the Democratic Party”) would just be the same mask that other patients put on when they first face the empty chair in the therapist’s office. But by making a mockery of the practice, he had nowhere to go from his awkward position but downhill to cruder jokes.

The humanity that Clint showed, then, was not that of honest emotion, but rather how easy it is for anybody (albeit a very politically active somebody) to succumb to a politically toxic environment and become the very same political kitsch that everybody condemns. As Milan Kundera describes in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, political kitsch is the “absolute denial of shit,” the same worldview where there are no questions or hard truths because all answers are provided in advance. By “having a little chat” later about the President’s record, we get a story that our creaky economy is not a combination of factors, but because Obama is an attorney and “attorneys are taught to argue” (I’m not sure what that means). Whether it is harmless or incoherent, Clint squandered an opportunity to bridge the two parties together and widened the gap with a kitschy performance aimed only to pander and please. His own crudeness has the other side already joking about Clint’s senility as an example of why we need Obamacare.

If Howard Dean’s screaming back in 2004 is any indication, this speech will only be a blip amongst late-night TV before comedians tire and move onto something else. But this blip also puts us at a crossroads: will the empty chair be used for the political therapy session that the nation badly needs, or will it continue to be an idiot straw man that serves as a barometer of our nation’s worsening discourse? In the end, the empty chair is more important than it seems.

Original Author: Kai Sam Ng